At Home in the Bay - May/June 2018
- story and photos by Ellis Anderson
Maybe the pull most people feel for a coastline is a simple desire to be near water. To have an expansive view of sky and sea. To breathe deeply of salt-scented air.
But for many who live farther inland in this particular state, there’s more. A historic sense of place also beckons with a different charm. For while coastal communities on the Gulf were colonized by European settlers more than three-hundred years ago, most of the cities in the interior – at least those away from the Mississippi River - are fledglings by comparison.
For instance, Hattiesburg, our neighbor only 83 miles to the north, wasn’t established until 1884.
At Home in the Bay
Nearly 150 years later, those ties still have Hattiesburg natives traveling southward on a regular basis. Many have second homes on the coast during their working years. They dream of the day they’ll be able to retire by the water full time.
Marvin and Gina met while they were both freshmen at Southern Mississippi, in 1966. Marvin was a Hattiesburg native, while Gina had grown up in Sumrall, a rural community in Lamar County. Hattiesburg represented the big city to her. She and her girlfriends from college would cruise through the burger drive-thrus with Gina at the wheel of her parents’ 1963 station wagon. One evening, Marvin and she struck up a conversation. Neither looked back. They married in 1968.
Skyrocketing interest rates in the mid-seventies had Marvin reconsidering his choice of career. The young father began law school at Mississippi College. Working the entire time, he graduated just two days before the couple’s third child was born. He credits the education he received at Mississippi College for helping him pass the bar exam on the first try – at a time when the pass rate was 17%.
“Those times were quite challenging,” says Marvin. “But they were fun.”
Busy careers and the activities of four children eventually cut into their time on the coast, but still the Morrises dreamed and schemed to return. Finally, in 2002, the empty-nesters purchased a home on Henderson Point near Pass Christian. One that would be their retirement home. Dream fulfilled.
But the dream home’s three bedrooms and two baths proved to be too small when all the children – and growing number of grandchildren – came calling. The couple began an ambitious addition that doubled the size of the house, allowing for full-tilt-boogie family reunions.
The Morris home in Hattiesburg also sustained tremendous damage, so for the next few years, they focused on getting their lives in order there. Yet the coast still called.
So when a cousin suggested that Marvin and Gina start looking in Bay St. Louis, they drove down and found a house for sale on Main Street. Built on some of the highest ground fronting the entire Gulf of Mexico, the Old Town historic district had taken a beating, but its core was still basically intact.
One Friday, they spotted a “for sale” sign in the front yard of their turnaround house. They called realtor Estus Kea, who had sold them the Main Street cottage. The Morrises arranged for a showing the next day and put in an offer the next.
The couple purchased the 2,800 square foot house knowing that it would need both major renovations and a large addition. Since there was no downstairs bedroom, they wanted to build a master suite in the eventuality that neither could climb stairs at some point in the future.
Yet Gina and Marvin were concerned that a large addition could look like “a sore thumb.”
After many talks, Gina finally took out a pad of yellow legal paper and began sketching the addition that would add another 1,600 square feet to the historic home. It would have modern conveniences and a contemporary feel, yet it would complement the original home.
A draftsman drew up construction documents from Gina’s sketch. When a friend saw the design, she brought over a copy of the post-Katrina Summary Report, published by the Mississippi Renewal Forum. Some of the best architects and planners in the country had worked on the publication four years earlier. It put forth ideas for each of the coast communities to consider while rebuilding.
On page 23 of the book, in the section on Bay St. Louis, is a drawing of 600 North Beach. The house is unmistakable. The drawing shows an addition to the rear. The drawing is presented in the book as an example of how surviving historic homes could be enlarged. From the detail that can be seen, it looks almost identical to the one that Gina designed.
Gina had instinctively nailed it.
In the addition, the lion’s share of the ground floor contains a master suite for Marvin and Gina. Upstairs are two spacious bedrooms adjoining a Jack & Jill bath. All of the bedrooms open onto wide screen porches overlooking the tropical landscaping in the back yard. It’s obvious that the couple finds gardening one of their joys in life. Their vision in landscaping is especially apparent when comparing the photo of the addition from 2010 and a current one, taken eight years later.
Chris’s wife, building contractor Jackye Crane (Crane Builders), remodeled the kitchen and is credited with discovering and resolving a major structural issue.
“We’d had other contractors look at the floor upstairs because it was getting bouncy. No one could find any reason for it, “ says Marvin. “Jackye had the good sense to actually tear out some boards so she could see the damage. Termites had eaten everything under the sun between the floors.” Repairs were made, flooring replaced and it’s now impossible to differentiate between original and new.
This interior of the home thorughout sings with sunshine, even on cloudy days. Paint colors include lots of ambers and golds and daffodil shades. “We both love yellow,” Gina explains. “My kids say I’d paint the world yellow if I could.”
Most of the furnishings, artwork and décor tell stories. There’s a statue of Evangeline Marvin’s parents purchased when they were young. There’s the door knocker from the house Marvin grew up in on Main Street in Hattiesburg. There’s the old oak table that came from Gina’s grandmother and her mother’s mirror.
The new/historic hybrid house is often filled with family. At full capacity, there are eighteen adults and children and a dozen dogs.
“There’s a lot of howling and digging of holes,” says Marvin, laughing. “We’re always excited about seeing our children.”
When it comes to listing some of their favorite things about living in the Bay, the couple point to the slower pace of life, less traffic, the big selection of indie eateries, and the cultural diversity.
“Don’t forget golf carts,” says Gina, smiling. “If they end up taking our car away eventually, we’ll still be able to find our way down to those restaurants.”
The couple still speaks with great fondness of Hattiesburg and they say some Lamar County friends wonder when they’ll return. Which leads to the question: would they ever consider moving away from the coast again?
Grinning, Marvin has a quick answer: “You couldn’t run me back with a shotgun.”